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Op/Ed by Eric Newton

Oct. 17, 2014

A journalism problem you haven’t considered:  Education
 
By Eric Newton
 
I know this is going to bother some of you. But every once in a while, someone has to say it:
 
In the United States of America, in 2013, in plain sight, some of the people among us make a living being fair, independent journalists.
 
There, I said it. Honest journalists exist.
 
Now watch the blogosphere light up. “No way!” says the right. “The liberal media is a horde of communists… .” “No way!” says the left. “The corporate media is a gang of fascists… .” Together, they leave no journalist unscathed.
 
I’d like to offer a view from the place where truth often can be found, somewhere in the middle. Society needs journalists who can tell hard truths, just as it needs doctors who can cure, lawyers who can win justice and politicians who can compromise to solve problems.
 
We need the useful, reliable flows of news and information just as we need clean water and safe streets. We need fair journalism in the game of life just as we need fair referees in the game of football.
 
Since we need good journalists, we should care about their education in the approximately 500 universities that offer journalism programs.
 
It’s a university’s job to think critically about media and to prepare digital storytellers who want to live their lives in the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth. But like the institution of traditional media itself, many journalism schools are having a hard time adjusting to the way you prefer to get your news in this fast-changing digital world.
 
There are exceptions, of course. But the number of truly digitally savvy journalism and communications professors seems to total in the hundreds among the 12,000 full- and part-time journalism profs.
 
Though much is written about the viability of journalism and its role in our democratic republic, little is said about the pipeline for its future. Education is important because it produces in a good year thousands of j-school grads entering newsrooms.
 
Sadly, journalism education is a symphony of slowness. A recent Poynter Institute study says only 26 percent of the media professionals surveyed believe the students they hire have all they need to succeed. Another survey reported that almost 40 percent of the graduates themselves said they did not get enough technology training at school. It took 20 years for 95 percent of college media to get online, never mind going mobile and social, and even today, only a third of America’s high school media are online.
 
Yet we need students who can do more than survive today’s journalism realities; we need them to help reinvent news in the digital age. This matters not just to society at large but to higher education as well. If the communication faculty don’t lead the academy into this new digital age of communication, who will? The same digital tsunami that upended traditional media is now knocking on the door of higher education in the form of distance learning, Massive Open Online Courses and open educational resources.
 
I’m trying to call attention to these issues with a free digital book, “Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes From the Digital Age of Journalism.” It makes the case for the digital transformation of journalism and journalism education, and also is an example of that change. The book was produced in months, rather than years, and in a digital format that can be constantly updated.
 
I know something about the subject because the foundation where I work, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has invested about $200 million over the past 15 years in journalism and media education.

By itself, though, one foundation can’t change the machinery teaching the roughly 200,000 journalism and mass communications students now in college. We need help from journalists themselves and society at large.
 
Journalists who hire students can insist they be digitally fluent; they can push institutions where they teach to change; they can work through their professional organizations, such as the American Society of News Editors, by helping with its youth journalism work.
 
What can members of the public do? You can admit that independent information is the clay from which all your favorite commentators make their brickbats. You can acknowledge that, while citizens are entitled to their own opinions, we are not entitled to our own sets of facts. You can agree that good, honest journalists actually exist. Then, find the ones near you—be they students or professionals—and tell them what news and information you’re missing, what you need.
 
I realize that may be too tall an order for some. So be it. If you are running your lives, your businesses and your governments without independent information, I’d sure like to know how that’s going. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with Johnny Cash, because what he sang could have come from any good journalist: “Well, I may be right and I may be wrong, but you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.”
 
Eric Newton, a senior adviser at Knight Foundation,edited newspapers, co-created the multimedia Newseum and helped build Knight’s journalism and media innovation program.